The $6 Misunderstanding

Mobile

by Michel Butor
Simon and Schuster, $6.00

The anti-novel novelists (anti-writing writers, really) continue to be the smartest mannequins in the showrooms of Parisian haute-culture; and, to judge from the latest and cutest displays of Robbe-Grillet et cie, it would seem we must prepare for an even vaguer nouvelle vague: for example, one of the tribe, M. Marc Saporti, is currently offering an object said to be a novel which consists of several dozen unbound pages contained inside a portfolio: the pages are unnumbered, numbers being superfluous, for these pages are not intended (necessarily) to be read in sequence, or even top to bottom, or even, heaven help us, left to right. One may shift and shuffle and make of it what one will: a sort of do-it-yourself literary-kit. But Saporti, like our own William Burroughs, takes himself with utmost seriousness; and, again like Mr. Burroughs, is so taken by a sizable section of the more solemn book reviewers. And Saporti is by no means an extreme example of this fashionable school. There are other extravagant practitioners, among them Michel Butor, the author of such highly respected anti-novels as Passing Time and A Change of Heart.

Last year M. Butor tried something new: journalism: a “travel book.” He called it Mobile (in honor of Calder? or the Alabama seaport?); Gallimard published it most luxuriously, and the French press, while not wildly enthusiastic, just the same paid it a lot of unjoking attention. Now, in a translation by Richard Howard, the book has been issued in this country. The importers are Simon & Schuster, and the price is $6, a sum certain to result in hard feelings on the part of many customers, at least those who understood (or misunderstood) that they were buying a usable, that is to say readable, article.

Mobile is not readable. At any rate I haven’t been able to get through it, though it was supposedly my duty to do so (but wasn’t it Agee who always insisted a critic need not read a book in order to criticize it?). Anyway, of Butor’s 328 pages, I “read” almost 200, then skimmed to the end. The author’s announced subject is the United States: impressions assimilated during a state-by-state, virtually country-by-country, American journey. Collage is the technique involved: enigmatic diary jottings, pop-song lyrics, dreary snippets of almanae-information, bits of unfinished poetry, and long, long laundry-like lists of American merchandise, the whole of it set forth in an unwitty, unoriginally eccentric typography. Open the book anywhere. I have: and here are pages 108-109:

RICHMOND

The Lyre

RICHMOND

The illuminated face of Cary Grant.

RICHMOND.

The Charioteer.

RICHMOND.—When it is eight o’clock in

RICHMOND

eight o’clock in

RICHMOND.

Night over the water.

RICHMOND.

The parks at night.

DANVILLE, county seat of Boyle County.

The meadows at night.

DANVILLE, county seat of Vermillion County.

The bars at night.

LEBANON, county seat of Marion County, Kentucky.

The noise of the water at night.

Or perhaps, though the selection was made quite at random …

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